The Art of Random Willy-Nillyness: Director Kenneth Branagh Talks Cinderella! #CinderellaEvent
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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Director Kenneth Branagh Talks Cinderella! #CinderellaEvent

Disclosure: I attended the #CinderellaEvent and my expenses: flight, accommodations, transportation and some meals were covered by Disney. All opinions, however, are 100% mine.

I have to say that this was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. I have been a fan of Kenneth Branagh for decades. Since I saw him in Henry V, I have been taken by Mr. Branagh. He is such an impeccable actor. Plus, he is such a fantastic director.

When he walked into the room, I almost gasped because there he was feet away from me. Then I worked up enough courage to ask him what brought him to this project. I am glad I had the transcripts because, honestly, when he looked in my eyes to answer my question, I forgot everything. Okay, I am being a little overly dramatic but that's how it felt.

What I loved about Kenneth, yes I am on a first name basis, is that he was so charming and funny. Plus, he directed one heck of a movie. Here he talks about what brought him to the project, the hardest scene to film and Richard Madden's tight pants. I knew that would get you! Enjoy!

Kenneth Branagh (KB): How is everybody this morning? Good. Who have you spoken to so far? Everyone? Oh, really. So I’m the last one in. All right. Have you had a-- give you a good time. Good, thank you, thank you. Great.

Q: Tell us about the casting process.

KB: I had an idea of how Cinderella should be. But we knew, in my experience, it was going be like I made a film, Thor, which took a long time to find the beautiful and sexy Chris Hemsworth. Now officially the sexiest man in the world. I thought, well, I have good taste then clearly. We knew that it would take a while and that you had to really feel that the character-- the actor would, in this case, you just want to be with them. You know, you want to be in their company.

Yeah, she had to be likable. You needed to want to spend, those 90 minutes or whatever with her. And because of the way we were slightly reimagining the character’s personality, she needed to have, a good sense of humor, a kinda what we were calling a kind of an approachable beauty, and kindness and passion and strength and that could stand up, in a scene with Miss Blanchett or Miss Bonham-Carter.

Who also just had a kind of simplicity without being, sappy. So it was gonna take a long time. I heard Lily James’ voice first. I thought, God, that's a beautiful voice. Then she was a beautiful girl. And then she was very patient across a lot of auditions and things. And eventually it just became clear that she was the one.

Q: What was the most difficult scene to direct?

KB: I think probably the ballroom sequence because you knew that there would be so much expectation on it. And you knew that practically speaking you were gonna have 500 people, half of whom were gonna be in corsets. And that was gonna be a bit tricky. You know, you’ve gonna have 500 people to the loo as well during the course of the day. Then get them back on set before wasting too much time. I knew that the dancing and then the sort of staging and the sense of our opulent it was and getting a sense of the glamour and the flamboyance of it was important.

I wanted to take people to the ball. But I also knew that for me the scene was just as much about his hand on the small of her back in the beginning of that dance. So it was trying to keep that big large-scale ambitions with just wanting the human dynamic of the boy meets girl moment.

Q: What brought you to this project?

KB: I think it was the surprise of being asked. I hadn't long ago done Thor. And I did a film called Jack Ryan. And so a couple of quite boy-sy films. And being asked to do a girl’s film, if that's not a stupid way of putting it. And, a fairytale and such a famous one, and I remembered a of couple things from Cinderella. I loved the chase back from the palace at midnight. I really remember in the original animated film the stepmother coming out of the dark with two blazing green eyes at which she's lying in bed.

Cinderella brings her some tea. I remember it being a bit scary but very exciting and fun. I was very aware also if you do a Disney film then you have a big responsibility. There's going to be a lot of kids seeing it for the first time. And they all know the story as well. I've never made a film where the lights go down and you realize that everybody from five to 95 knows what's gonna happen next. So it’s not about what happens next. It’s about how you do what happens next. So that was very exciting.

Q: Were there sound bites from the original animation?

KB: No. It sounds a bit daft. But we scripted the entire mice story through the movie. So Chris Weitz and I sat down, and we wrote words, dialogue for all four of the mice in every scene in which they appeared. And then we recorded them with actors a couple of different ways. Sometimes we made the actors say it very, very, very slowly so that when we then sped it up to be in sort of mice squeak mode, you could just get a half a hint, half a hint of what they [said].

So for instance Gus Gus at the end when he finally is persuaded that he shouldn’t eat the cheese and maybe he should jump on the back of the other three so they can open the window and they can hear Cinderella singing. He does something. There were a few little throw away remarks like that. I don't think that we went back and raided mice remarks from the original movie. But we do have a secret mouse play and screenplay inside the movie.

Q: How did you chose the locations?

KB: We almost always have a location manager to whom you give a brief. Then they go off and help out. But you know, as being a small country you end up knowing a few. And how I've done a few pictures with palaces in, I have my contacts as it were. But essentially of course we built so much of it that we didn't do too much inside real palaces. The whole of that ballroom is an entire construction on the 007 stage in Pinewood. But the outside of Cinderella’s house was all built for real in a place called Black Park.

And then interestingly the forest where the prince and Cinderella, is in Windsor Great Park, which is essentially the Queen’s back garden. She lives in Windsor Castle part of the time, so part of that park involves that group of oak trees, which are over 600 years old. So it was very nice to be able to say to Lily and Richard you're gonna do this magical scene in a magical place. 'Cause these oak trees were here when Shakespeare was alive. It was really very sort of magical.

We were around that area, the southeast part of the England around Windsor Castle. It was basically there and around and there are some wonderful forests and beautiful spots to shoot.

Q: Was the Royal Naval College used as a location?

KB: Well-spotted call, well researched. The Royal Naval College is used for one scene. You may know that location from a number of other films. They blow up quite a lot of it in the second Thor film. But, in this case, we used a thing called the Paint Hall. It’s a massive, massive hall. And it’s the scene in which the two boys fence is in the Paint Hall at the Royal Naval College.

But we did, I think we were inspired for the design of the clock tower by a clock tower that lives in the real grounds of Cliveden House, which is also in near Pinewood Studios.

Q: It was amazing.

KB: Well, thank-- thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you very much. Thank you, thank you, appreciate it.

Q: It has an innocence.

KB: I think so. I think we absolutely embrace the spirit of it. And in a couple of occasions we really hint at a couple of shots. But I think the real sort of reinvention is the character of Cinderella and her kind of proactiveness. You know, she doesn’t just wait around but also this uncynical belief in the in the power of kindness and courage.

And one of the things we really wanted to do was just make sure that was not something that the kids were being sort of lectured. It was done lightly enough from a character who seemed to embody it in a way that still allowed her to be happy and free and intelligent and smart and, you know to be fun. I mean not suddenly be all self-righteous and pious and everything. So I think that that was something we tried very hard to do. The hardest, hardest, hardest decision in the whole movie was-- I know it’s a bit of a Disney cliché 'cause they’ve been doing it since Bambi was losing parents.

As you will have spotted, we got three out of four of the parents. I feel responsible for a kind of attack on the grown ups. But it’s tough. You know, I mean it’s tough. But it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful. In the first ten minutes where Mum goes, my God, you see the shoulders heave. If you sit at the back of the auditorium and you see a lot of arms go around small people, either reach up or vice versa.

We didn't want to traumatize young people. But at the same time as I was mentioning earlier, this sort of responsibility you have if you get the privilege of making a Disney movie is there is a way to maybe just find a compassionate way to talk about things that includes some of the difficult things that life throws up. As long as, you know, it can be done lightly.

Q: Can you talk about Cinderella’s proactivity?

KB: Well, I think that we start with her in a family that's functioning and loving and supportive and you know, in a sense you see it created inasmuch she's brought in to the death of the mother. So that's shared with her. I think the passing on of a kind of a generous outlook I think is important. We also see that when faced with perhaps the latest extreme example of cruelty, which is the renaming of her, we see a moment where she gets on that horse and she goes. I think a question anybody asks of a modern Cinderella, why doesn’t she leave? Well, she may leave there. And she certainly has a passionate response to it and a passionate response to the prince that she encounters. But as she talks about later on, she stays there partly because in her view at this point, she honors her mother and father. And that's a positive and proactive decision I think to stay there.

And also I think we meet her reading a book, the grown up Cinderella. We see a house that's full of curiosity. There are curious minds at work. I think she stays partly to try and understand it. I would say that's an example of proactivity. By the time she talks to the stepmother and stays, I mean the proactivity is the decision to stay in a way and say why? Why are you so cruel? A determination to ask it and understand this.

The challenge was to try and keep her there and keep her in the story but somehow find the way to express a strength that made us believe as we did going into it that this was a Cinderella who ultimately we believed would be fine if a prince didn't come along who was not searching for that.

But what's searching on one level was searching for how you can be happy and in this case how you can be happy once what was your happiness, your happy family has been removed? So I think in those ways, I think that's how we go at it.

Q: Was there talk about telling the story from a different perspective?

KB: For me, I mean that's what Chris Weitz’s screenplay had, and that's what I liked. I remember saying to Ali Shearmur, our producer, at the beginning of the process, I said I think my big idea here is to try to get out of the way. The story’s been working for two and a half thousand years. There's a reason why that's happening. My experience has been to try and let the work of great storytellers do as much work as possible and then try and amend and adjust as best you see fit from your own perspective.

My experience, for instance, in Shakespeare and I've done it a number of times where you take a strong conceptual idea and you might move the story completely. You might make it very modern. I did a version a play called Love’s Labour’s Lost as a kind of Hollywood musical. So it shifted it by 300-- 350 years and to some extent did tell it from a different kind of viewpoint. And I think a lot of people may not just liked the film, but for a lot of people the actual idea itself was confusing. It got in the way and felt reductive. It may have been just specific to that.

I know that they in developing this they thought about whether she could be in modern, wherever it might be, Brooklyn or whatever indeed there's tons of evidence of modern Cinderella stories where gender is changed or time is changed. I feel as though you get a chance to provoke and think differently if it’s through a classical perspective.

It’s in a way, to give a specific example, in putting Cinderella and the prince on horseback, even Steven, the same level, in nature, in this ancient forest I think kind of cleans it up. So I get to see more of the two of them. I get a sense of the feeling in the scene in this sort of primal relationship there than I might do even if I came up with the most fantastic and brilliant modern touches by having them meet in a restaurant or go on a bridge or on an airplane.

All of which would be entirely legit as well. You could have because the story is so flexible. It’s just that I'm not as drawn to that myself. I’m sure as Disney and other people pursue the idea of a live action version of fairytales that that's an absolute.

Q: What brought you to cast Richard?

KB: I thought that he had sort of, apart from very blue eyes and very tight trousers, they actually weren't his own trousers. He had, intelligence and wit. And also he relished the idea of how you might sort of play a gentleman. He wasn’t striving hard to be a certain modern kind of cool.

I love the idea that [these actors] were prepared to be uncynical in the film and just sort of respond directly to each other and that a gallantry, a courtship, the desire to woo, to serve, to listen were things that he felt could be played very positively and would be very, very attractive and in a way there was a natural disposition in the world of the piece that we presented for him to love her.

You know, and that he was able to do that and not see that as suddenly rendering him the love interest. It was a very powerful thing to be somebody listening, looking, and reacting, and trying to with the screen time that he has and I think it’s very touching and wonderful chemistry between them. And I think he was somebody I felt could do this thing we needed to do of having a man who earned Cinderella’s respect and love. Didn't just get it because he had a big car.

CINDERELLA opens in theaters everywhere on March 13th!

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  1. Mr. Branagh gave you a great interview. And I am glad he realized that a story that has been around so very long should not really be altered to be modern. The more I read the posts, the more anxious I become to enjoy the movie. Thank you so much for the blog.

  2. What an interesting man! Thanks so much for sharing this interview and his insights. Makes me like him even more than I did before. I can imagine that being in the same room with him must have been a pretty powerful experience.